Feeling like you can’t take in enough air or even breathe at all is downright scary. If this is a common experience, it’s important to figure out what’s causing your shortness of breath. Breathing difficulties can be a symptom of so many things: COVID-19, pneumonia, panic attacks, heart attacks, and all types of asthma—including allergic asthma—according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). And each of these root causes may require different approaches and treatments to clear up your breathing. SELF spoke to top doctors to tackle everything you need to know about shortness of breath, including common causes, allergy triggers, and treatment.
What causes shortness of breath?
Dyspnea, or shortness of breath, is generally an indicator of heart or lung problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Cardiac-induced shortness of breath usually happens when your heart can’t properly fill up with blood and pump it to the rest of your body, a process that keeps things running smoothly, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. This creates pressure in the blood vessels around the lungs, causing shortness of breath.1
Pulmonary shortness of breath happens in two ways, Tania Elliott, MD, an immunologist and clinical instructor in the department of medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, tells SELF. “One is you’re so congested that you don’t breathe in enough air through your nasal passages,” she says. As a result, your lungs don’t get enough oxygen.
The other is due to bronchospasm, which happens when the muscles lining the airways in the lungs spasm and constrict, Dr. Elliott says. People can have bronchospasms for many reasons, including asthma.
“If you find yourself short of breath and also wheezing or coughing, that may be caused by asthma,” John Oppenheimer, MD, a physician at Atlantic Medical Group in New Jersey and a clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers University, tells SELF. Asthma can flare up for numerous reasons, such as exercise or exposure to an allergen. (The latter is known as allergic asthma.)
It’s crucial to determine whether your shortness of breath is caused by something like allergies or cardiac problems, Dr. Elliott says. If your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, or tingling and numbness in your arm, call your doctor ASAP or get emergency care just to be safe.
Why do allergies cause shortness of breath?
Shortness of breath isn’t one of the most common allergy symptoms (unless you’re so congested you can’t breathe), according to Dr. Elliott. “Allergies impact the upper respiratory tract,2 meaning your nose and throat. Generally, people who have allergies experience symptoms affecting the upper respiratory tract, which makes sense because you breathe allergens in through your nose,” she says. This explains why your eyes feel itchy and your nose runs after breathing in an allergen such as pollen. But if you have allergic asthma, allergens inflame the lower respiratory tract too, causing the muscles around the airway to narrow, leading to asthma symptoms: shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing, according to the NLM.